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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Keep voting until you say "Yes!"

Sometimes I think the "My EU right or wrong" brigade should adopt Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" as their theme tune: "You win some, you lose some, it all the same to me..." Seriously, I saw this on the Spectre website.

2005: Neoliberal offensive shakes but holds steady, January 11, 2006 by Paul Falzon
The rejection of the Constitution in France and the Netherlands put a brake on the fervour of those who wish to see a Europe given over wholly to competition. But, asks Paul Falzon, for how long?

Forget the 'no' to the European Constitutional Treaty: or so the EU's leaders would like to have it, beginning with Jacques Chirac who, on 29th May, suffered a reverse which six months earlier would have been unimaginable. The French President will in January put forward putatively ambitious proposals regarding the EU's institutions, proposals of which he may give a foretaste during the traditional presidential new year's speech. The head of state's intervention will be the first of a long series: the new presidency of the EU, which in the first half of 2006 will be provided by Austria, is officially charged with the task of launching a debate on the institutions. Belgium and Luxembourg have in this context proposed the strengthening of the role of the Eurogroup, the eurozone's political council.

The prevailing tendency points, however, towards a relaunching of the Treaty. The Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) has just voted in favour of an application of the text from 2009. According to Socialist Party MEP Benoit Hamon, who campaigned for a 'no' and who has now been promoted to become the Socialists' principal spokesman on Europe, one way to achieve this would be to remove Part III, the most heavily criticised section, at the same time maintaining Part I which, however, contains all the principles of crazed liberalisation of economic activity. Hamon does not rule out "a new convention", but this idea finds little favour in the EP, which largely supports the existing text.

The Union's new Iron Lady, Angela Merkel, also remains a fervent partisan of the Treaty, wishing to see it "brought back to life." The German Chancellor's entourage has already let slip suggestions of a scenario in which the Constitution would in 2007 be submitted a second time for ratification, after the Presidential election in France and the parliamentary elections in the Netherlands. This would doubtless occur in the second half of the year in order to avoid any damage to the campaigns of those parties which support the Treaty. While the text would remain unchanged, it would be accompanied by a declaration on 'the social dimension', a compilation of declarations aimed at reassuring those who voted 'no'.

The German leader is setting the tone for the Constitution's salvage operation: change nothing, or almost nothing, of the fundamentals, but take care of the voters by changing the form. It is through this lens that Jacques Chirac's proposals must be analysed. The French head of state announced on 17th December that he was in favour of "a respect for the vote" of the French people. He was thus able to create a feeling that the message would at last be taken on board, though he has always refused to declare the Constitutional Treaty dead. He isn't the only one in the EU to describe himself, at least in his speeches, as sensitive to the social malaise revealed by the 'no'. Austria took a position this autumn in favour of a thorough and profound revision, including an abandonment of the directive on liberalisation of services, the measure often referred to as the Bolkestein Directive, after its instigator Frits Bolkestein. Vienna judged, in substance, that European public opinion was not yet ready to accept the unrestrained competition which has marked the EU's last twenty years, since the passing of the Single European Act in 1986. Beyond that, the Twenty-five have remained silent on the subject. No decision emerged from last December's European Council, even if Tony Blair did wish to obtain a "political agreement."

The debate on the Bolkestein Directive is emblematic of the political tension which swept the EU in 2005. On one side, the trade unions and most left-wing political parties are concerned about the risks of fiscal and social dumping which the proposed legislation would bring with it; on the other, the conservative and liberal right, along with certain elements of the centre-left, such as the British Labour Party. This right wing has been losing ground as pressure has been kept up by mobilisation, notably the Euro-demo in Brussels on 19th March. On the other hand it has shown itself at the close of 2005 to be extremely aggressive: the text on which Euro-MPs will vote on 17th February is extremely close to that proposed originally by the Commission.

The relaunching of a trade union and political movement from mid-January 2006 could once again allow a profound modification, if not a burial, of the directive on the liberalisation of services. The attitude of the centre-right, governing UMP's Euro-MPs, who declared the proposal dead before the referendum but who then supported the most extreme amendments when they came before the EP committee this autumn, has given a revealing view of the development of the relation of forces. One thing is certain: the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty dealt a blow to the liberal offensive led by the right with the support of governments of the centre left. The period of flux which followed the double 'no' in France and the Netherlands as much as the reversals, even if they turn out to be temporary, of the Services Directive show that the breach exists.


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